Research & Experiments

Sister District Action Network

Sister District Action Network (SDAN) is the 501(c)(4) non-profit affiliate of Sister District Project. SDAN specializes in research and civic engagement, and focuses on research pertaining to voter registration, voter turnout, and volunteer engagement. Most SDAN research investigates the efficacy of a variety of voter registration and outreach tactics like postcarding or text messaging, as well as the efficacy of volunteer engagement tactics. SDAN is focused on:

  • Producing and disseminating high-quality research in the areas of civic engagement and voter participation.
  • Educating voters on the importance of state and local elections and policies.
  • Engaging in policy analysis, development, and dissemination to candidates, policymakers, and the public.

Voter Registration and Engagement Research

SDAN+VPC VR Voting Pipeline Postcard Study

We ran a randomized controlled trial to determine: 1) if people who received a handwritten postcard encouraging voter registration, along with an official voter registration form from Voter Participation Center (VPC), in our March and Sept 2018 studies had higher odds of turning out to vote in the November 2018 general election; and 2) if the effect of those postcards differed based on whether or not those targets had returned the registration form sent to them by VPC earlier in the year.

2018 GOTV Postcarding Results

We ran two randomized controlled trials in the Fall of 2018 to determine if receiving a handwritten postcard encouraging the target to vote increased the odds of voters turning out to vote for in the 2018 general election in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and further sought to determine if those odds differed based on the postcard message.

Voter Registration Postcarding 2: A Replication with VPC + SDAN

We ran a randomized controlled trial to determine if the receipt of a handwritten postcard a week after the receipt of an official voter registration form increased the odds of people completing & returning the voter registration form, as compared to the odds of return among people who did not receive a postcard.

Text Message Cell Phone

Texting out the vote: Do GOTV texts help motivate voters to the polls?

Sister District Action Network (SDAN) and the Mississippi NAACP (MS NAACP) partnered to conduct an experiment around GOTV text messaging.

VPC+SDAN Postcarding Experiment Results

Sister District Action Network (SDAN) partnered with the Voter Participation Center (VPC) to send handwritten postcards encouraging registration to eligible, unregistered individuals living in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona in March 2018. These postcards were sent in conjunction with VPC’s Voting Age Population Program, which sent official voter registration forms to these same people.

Relational-study

Relational Voter Turnout: Tag, You’re It?

This study explores whether being tagged with an encouragement to vote in a status on Facebook by a friend made people more likely to vote in the 2018 general election, and also whether personality factors of the tagger or aspects of the relationship between the tagger and the tagged friend affect the tagged person’s 2018 general election voting.

Location, Location, Location: Does postcard postmark location matter for voter turnout?

We sent GOTV postcards to voters in North Carolina and Texas to see if receiving a postcard at all might boost turnout, and to see if turnout was different for people who received a postcard sent from in-state as opposed to a postcard sent from out of state.
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Writing

Voter registration chase: A head to head comparison of postcards and letters

Sister District Action Network (SDAN) and the Voter Participation Center (VPC) conducted an experiment in April-May 2020 directly comparing the efficacy of postcards and letters as chaser communications to improve the response rate to voter registration forms.
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Volunteer Research

Call (or Text) Your Girlfriend – Personal Contact Works Better Than Just Email To Recruit and Confirm Volunteers to Attend Team Events

In 2018, we ran two studies in partnership with Dr. Katherine Haenschen at Virginia Tech to explore the best ways to get volunteers to RSVP and attend team events. This post synthesizes the main findings of those studies. For specifics about each study, you can find recruitment study results here and confirmation study results here.

Sister District Survey Results: Social Investment in Teams = Increased Volunteer Participation

In January 2019, we surveyed our members to learn more about what motivates them to be part of our community, and what factors are associated with higher levels of participation in SDP activities.

“Friendraising”: Goal-Oriented Fundraising Emails to Friends and Family

We conducted a mixed methods pilot study to determine if appealing to friends and family via email is a viable fundraising strategy, and if spelling out a specific fundraising goal is more effective in increasing the donation amount than using a general fundraising goal.

BLM Protesters with Masks on holding signs

Activism in the Age of COVID-19: a Study

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected grassroots volunteering? Our new research finds out.

Volunteer Resources

The Reward Trend of States, Visualized

Sister District harnesses the energy, creativity and resources of grassroots volunteers to restore Democratic majorities to state legislatures. Our unique organizing model “sisters” each of our teams to great Democratic candidates in specific swing legislative.

Sister District Alumni – Building the Progressive Policy Pipeline: Legislation Introduced (Not Passed)

This article focuses on proposed bills that failed to pass. Why bother? See the end of the article for more — but to eat dessert first: sometimes, as Morrissey says, “these things take time.” Introducing bills creates opportunities to respond to feedback, tweak, and reintroduce next session.

Correlations vs. Causation: Tips for Reading Political Research Studies

You’ve probably heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation” — but what does it mean? Here are some tips for reading Political Research Studies.

GOTV With Our Latest Research

Get Out More Votes, More Effectively The temperature is dropping, the leaves are changing, and pumpkins are popping up on front porches all over the nation. You know what that means: GOTV is here! GOTV, or “get out the vote,” marks a shift in campaign focus from persuading voters to vote for specific candidates or […]

Field Activities Overview

Bottom Line: In general, methods using live conversation (e.g., canvassing and phonebanking) are more effective than other methods of voter outreach.

All Field Tactics

  • Research shows that voter outreach tactics are more effective in “quieter” election contexts. They are most effective in odd-years and special elections, which means that a greater volume of voter outreach is needed in even years, e.g., presidential years.
  • Industry research1 generally finds that tactics are especially impactful closer to the election. The final weeks before the election are generally referred to as GOTV (Get Out the Vote).
  • On average, industry studies estimate that turnout effects across tactics are in the range of 0.2-3.0% (this is more than enough to sway an election, especially state/local elections).
  • On average, academic studies find larger effects. This may be due to academics running studies in quieter elections, using more random samples, or a bias towards reporting positive results.
  • Volunteer field efforts often outperform paid field efforts (but not always; quality is key).2

Canvassing

  • Canvassing reliably produces some of the best results in increasing turnout.
  • In Green and Gerber’s book, Get Out the Vote, they report that canvassing increased voter turnout in 44 out of the 51 studies they considered.3
  • Canvassing is the most effective volunteer tactic out of the major 4 (canvassing, phonebanking, textbanking, handwritten postcarding/letter-writing; Industry source).3

Phonebanking

  • Phonebanking is the best choice for remote volunteering.
  • Industry tests show it is up to twice as effective as textbanking and postcarding.
  • Phonebanking helps to boost voter turnout.
  • Nickerson and colleagues found that nonpartisan GOTV calls helped to boost turnout by 1.6-3.8% in several different studies across election contexts.4,5

Textbanking

  • Text messages have a small effect on voter turnout.
  • Texting has been found to boost turnout from 0.2 – 3.0% depending on targeting/message quality and election type.Industry source,6
  • Keep it informational.
  • Voters are best mobilized by information about how to vote during GOTV.

Postcarding and Letter-Writing:

  • Postcarding and letter-writing both appear to have small, modest effects.
  • They have been found to boost turnout from 0.1-1.4% depending on targeting/message quality and election type (Industry source).
  • No direct comparisons of handwritten or partially handwritten postcards and letters exist.

References:

  1. Industry source (SDAN has access to various research reports by progressive organizations that we are not allowed to disseminate or cite but are sharing broad strokes of here).
    Nickerson, D. W. (2007). Quality is job one: Professional and volunteer voter mobilization calls. American Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 269-282. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Quality.Nickerson.2007.pdf)
  2. Green, D. P., & Gerber, A. S. (2015). Get out the vote: How to increase voter turnout (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
    Nickerson, D. W. (2006). Volunteer phone calls can increase turnout: Evidence from eight field experiments. American Politics Research, 34(3), 271-292. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Nickerson.APR2005.pdf)
  3. Nickerson, D. W., Friedrichs, R. D., & King, D. C. (2006). Partisan mobilization campaigns in the field: Results from a statewide turnout experiment in Michigan. Political Research Quarterly, 59(1), 85-97. (https://iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files_new/research-policy-papers/king_nickerson_2005.pdf)
  4. Dale, A., & Strauss, A. (2009). Don’t forget to vote: text message reminders as a mobilization tool. American Journal of Political Science, 53(4), 787-804.

Download the PDF: Field Research Overview

Canvassing

Definition: Visiting voters at their homes to talk to them about voting.

Bottom Line: Canvassing is the most effective form of voter contact because of the opportunity for face-to-face communication.

Considerations

Pros – Best way to talk to voters (face to face); most evidence it works compared to other field tactics
Cons – Time consuming; must be done in person; harder to do in rural or exurban areas

Research findings

  1. Canvassing reliably increases turnout.
    • Academics (Green & Gerber) report that canvassing increased voter turnout in 44 out of 51 studies they reviewed.1
    • Academics (Green, Gerber, and Nickerson) ran 6 GOTV canvassing experiments before the 2001 municipal elections and found increases in turnout among canvassed voters ranging from 0.1%-4.6% with an average effect of 2.1%.2
    • Canvassing effects vary widely due to differences in election types, election competitiveness, canvass timing, canvass training and quality, contact rate, etc.2
    • Academics (Nickerson) found a 16.8% increase in turnout for the 2002 Michigan Gubernatorial election (but the standard error was 15, indicating a lot of uncertainty about that estimated increase).3
  2. Canvassing can be a good voter registration tool.
    • Academics (Nickerson) found an increase in registration of 4.4% across 6 experiments in a variety of election year types (i.e., president, congressional, municipal).4
  3. Canvassing is the most effective volunteer tactic out of the major 4 (canvassing, phonebanking, textbanking, handwritten postcarding/letter-writing; Industry source).5
  4. Areas for future exploration:
    • Effectiveness of canvassing in combination with other voter contact tactics, such as text messaging.
    • Completed/planned SDAN studies:
      • 2019 phonebank/canvass postcard chaser pilot study (MS/LA – results expected summer 2020)
      • 2020 Phonebank/canvass postcard chaser study (TX)

References:

  1. Green, D. P., & Gerber, A. S. (2015). Get out the vote: How to increase voter turnout (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  2. Green, D. P., Gerber, A. S., & Nickerson, D. W. (2003). Getting out the vote in local elections: Results from six door-to-door canvassing experiments. The Journal of Politics, 65(4), 1083-1096. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Green_Gerber_Nickerson.JOP_.2003.pdf)
  3. Nickerson, D. W., Friedrichs, R. D., & King, D. C. (2006). Partisan mobilization campaigns in the field: Results from a statewide turnout experiment in Michigan. Political Research Quarterly, 59(1), 85-97. (https://iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files_new/research-policy-papers/king_nickerson_2005.pdf)
  4. Nickerson, D. W. (2015). Do voter registration drives increase participation? For whom and when? The Journal of Politics, 77(1), 88-101. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Nickerson_registration_JOP.2015.pdf)
  5. Green and Gerber, 2015 + Industry sources (SDAN has access to various research reports by progressive organizations that we are not allowed to disseminate or cite but are sharing broad strokes of here).

Download the PDF: Canvassing Research

Phonebanking

Definition: Calling to talk to voters on the phone.
Bottom line: If canvassing is not an option, phonebanking is the next best thing.

Considerations

Pros – Best way to talk to voters remotely; most evidence it works compared to other tactics you can do remotely; helps reach rural and exurban areas
Cons – Somewhat less effective than canvassing; low contact rates

Research findings

  1. Phonebanking is the best choice for remote volunteering.
    • Industry tests1 show an average effect that is significant and is up to twice as effective as textbanking and postcarding.
  2. Phonebanking helps to boost voter turnout.
    • Academics (Nickerson) found that nonpartisan GOTV calls boosted turnout by 3.8% in 8 different studies across election contexts, compared to similar voters who didn’t receive the GOTV calls.2
    • Academics (Nickerson, Friedrichs, and King) found that GOTV phone calls around the 2002 gubernatorial election in Michigan boosted turnout by 1.6%, compared to similar voters who did not receive the GOTV calls.3
  3. Phonebank quality matters.
    • Academics (Nickerson) found that phone calls that are unhurried, personal, and allow room for a genuine dialogue with the voter (3-5% boost in turnout) are more effective than calls by hurried, poorly trained callers who were focused on call volume rather than quality (0.5% boost in turnout).4
    • Robo-calls are generally ineffective in increasing turnout, demonstrating the need for personal connection.5
  4. Calls to warm contacts are better than cold during GOTV.
    • Recontacting committed voters close to election day to GOTV is more effective than cold-calling people who have not already been identified as supporters.6
    • This means that phonebanking before GOTV is critical, so that when GOTV rolls around, we are calling people the campaign has already talked to.
  5. Areas for further exploration:
    • Effectiveness of phonebanking in combination with other tactics, e.g., postcarding.
    • Completed/planned SDAN studies:
      • 2019 Phonebank/canvass postcard chaser pilot study (MS/LA – results expected summer 2020)
      • 2020 Phonebank/canvass postcard chaser study (TX)

References:

  1. Industry source (SDAN has access to various research reports by progressive organizations that we are not allowed to disseminate or cite but are sharing broad strokes of here).
  2. Nickerson, D. W. (2006). Volunteer phone calls can increase turnout: Evidence from eight field experiments. American Politics Research, 34(3), 271-292. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Nickerson.APR2005.pdf)
  3. Nickerson, D. W., Friedrichs, R. D., & King, D. C. (2006). Partisan mobilization campaigns in the field: Results from a statewide turnout experiment in Michigan. Political Research Quarterly, 59(1), 85-97. (https://iop.harvard.edu/sites/default/files_new/research-policy-papers/king_nickerson_2005.pdf)
  4. Nickerson, D. W. (2007). Quality is job one: Professional and volunteer voter mobilization calls. American Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 269-282. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Quality.Nickerson.2007.pdf)
  5. Green, D. P., & Gerber, A. S. (2015). Get out the vote: How to increase voter turnout (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
    Industry source

Download the PDF: Phonebanking Research

Textbanking

Definition: Sending text messages to voters using a third party app like Hustle or ThruText.

Bottom line: The effectiveness of textbanking needs more research. There’s evidence that text messaging has small effects on voter turnout and voter registration.

Considerations

Pros – Can send several in a short period of time; can send people links to follow.
Cons – The unsubscribe rate can be high (which means you can’t contact the person via text again); cell phone number data is harder to get than landline data; time-consuming for campaigns to administer.

Research findings

  1. Text messages have a small effect on voter turnout.
    • Academics (Dale and Strauss) found that reminder-to-vote texts to newly registered voters boosted voter turnout 3.0% in the 2006 midterm elections, over similar voters who did not receive reminder-to-vote texts.1
    • Industry tests2 find that texting voters for GOTV provides average boosts in turnout of about 0.2-0.3%, compared to similar voters who do not receive GOTV texts.
  2. Text messages have a small effect on voter registration (VR).
    • Progressive partners (Vote.org and Analyst Institute3) found that voter registration targets that received text messages with a link to Vote.org’s registration form for their state registered at a 0.3% higher rate than targets that did not get a text message.
  3. Keep it informational.
    • Progressive partners (Hustle, Vote.org, and Analyst Institute4) have found that text messages that provided voters’ polling places were more effective (increase in turnout of 0.2% compared to similar voters who did not receive texts) than plan-making texts that required a response (decrease of 0.1% in turnout compared to similar voters who did not receive texts).
    • Industry tests reliably find that text messages that focus on information about how people can vote (election day, polling place, polling hours, etc) perform better than other types of text messages (e.g., plan-making).
  4. “Warm” contacts are better than “cold.”
    • Industry studies show that text messages to people who have opted into a text / phone list (warm contacts) are twice as effective in increasing turnout on average than text messages to people who have not consciously opted in (cold contacts).
  5. Requiring replies increases opt-out rate and decreases efficacy.
    • Industry tests with back and forth text messages tend to perform worse than single messages and are much more likely to produce opt-outs than single messages.
  6. Areas for further exploration:
    • Messaging other than GOTV – Research on engaging voters via messenger apps to build conversation about civic issues particularly promising (e.g., PushBlack on Facebook)
    • Planned SDAN studies
      • GOTV texting + persuasion around voting (focused on issues, without mentioning candidate)

References:

  1. Dale, A., & Strauss, A. (2009). Don’t forget to vote: text message reminders as a mobilization tool. American Journal of Political Science, 53(4), 787-804.
  2. Industry source (SDAN has access to various research reports by progressive organizations that we are not allowed to disseminate or cite but are sharing broad strokes of here).
  3. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wDO8oReryb8pSVLSY-mlOt2WxLui49AJ/view
  4. https://medium.com/votedotorg/increasing-voter-turnout-with-texts-voteorg-e38bd454bd64

Download the PDF: Textbanking Research

Postcarding & Letter-Writing

Definition: Sending fully or partially handwritten postcards or letters to voters in the mail.

Bottom line: The effectiveness of postcarding needs more research.1 There’s evidence that postcarding has small effects on voter turnout and voter registration.

Considerations

Pros – Postcards and letters can reach addresses inaccessible by canvassing; introvert-friendly volunteer activity; relatively cheap

Cons – Not as effective as personal contact methods; handwriting varies in legibility; limited space for message

Research findings

  1. Postcarding generally has a small effect on voter turnout.
    • Industry research2 generally finds a small, positive boost from GOTV postcarding (~0.1-1.4%). Results will always vary, but the largest effect (1.4%) was found in a 2007 Gubernatorial election when targeting unmarried women.
    • Good targeting matters. Our 2018 GOTV postcard experiment3 found null results, but the voters we sent postcards to were not representative of all Democratic voters in the district, which likely attenuated those results.
  2. Letter writing may offer promising results with small effects on voter turnout.
    • While no results have been made public, Vote Forward reportedly found in 2 studies that partially handwritten letters provide a small positive boost to special election turnout. One study had small, statistically significant results, while a second study did not have significant results.
  3. Postcarding appears to be effective when “chasing” another contact.
    • SDAN ran two studies sending chaser postcards to people who had already received voter registration forms in the mail.
      • In the first study4, people who received chaser postcards registered at a 20% higher rate than people who did not receive postcards.
      • In the second study5, people who received chaser postcards registered at a 12% higher rate than people who did not receive a postcard (increase in registrants of 0.26%).
  4. Areas for Further Exploration:
    • Motivating/educating voters who need a nudge to vote (low propensity voters) but who will likely vote Democratic if they do (high support voters).
    • Planned/ongoing SDAN studies:
      • GOTV postcard experiments – replication with more representative sample
      • Head-to-head comparison between handwritten letters and postcards
      • Two primaries – relevance of education in increasing primary turnout
      • Postmark – relevance of postmark location (local vs non-local)
      • 2019 Phonebank/canvass postcard chaser pilot study (MS/LA – results expected summer 2020)
      • 2020 Phonebank/canvass postcard chaser study (TX)

References and notes:

  1. We are aware of postcarding/letter writing reports from groups like Tony the Democrat (Postcards to Voters), Blue Virginia and Blue Wave Analytics, but they aren’t experiments or they are purely market research studies. Therefore we cannot draw reliable conclusions from these reports and so we have not included them in this overview.
  2. Industry source (SDAN has access to various research reports by progressive organizations that we are not allowed to disseminate or cite but are sharing broad strokes of here).
  3. https://sisterdistrict.com/research/2018-gotv-postcarding-results
  4. https://sisterdistrict.com/research/postcarding-experiment-results
  5. https://sisterdistrict.com/research/voter-registration-postcards-replication

Download the PDF: Postcarding Research

Volunteer Engagement

Bottom line: Direct contact with volunteers results in more participation.

Bottom Line Findings:

  • Talking to volunteers directly via text, phone, or face to face are all more effective for recruitment than just sending them emails.
  • It’s important to remind volunteers of their shifts to ensure higher attendance.
  • Volunteer training is crucial for the best voter outreach programs (e.g., phonebanking).

Research findings

  1. Active recruitment works better than email recruitment.
    • A 2018 study by SDAN and Dr. Katherine Haenschen found that recruiting volunteers to attend an event via text message, phone call, or a combination of the two increased RSVP rate and more than doubled attendance rate for the event compared to volunteers who just received email invitations to the event.1
  2. Reminding volunteers about events helps reduce flake rate and increase attendance.
    • Industry sources2 have found that sending volunteers reminders via phone calls or text messages decreases flake rate (the % of people who RSVP to attend but don’t show up) to events. Researchers suggested text messages for younger voters and phone calls for older voters.
    • A 2018 study by SDAN and Dr. Katherine Haenschen found that confirming that volunteers plan to attend events they have RSVP’d to attend, via text message, phone call, or a combination of the two, decreased flake rate to events compared to just sending email reminders to RSVPs.1
  3. Volunteers should be intrinsically motivated.
    • Research on intrinsic motivation (motivation driven by internal rewards like a feeling of accomplishment) demonstrates that people often become less motivated to do something when they are offered some kind of external incentive.3 This appears to be true in social, developmental, and organizational psychology research, especially when rewards are contingent on performance.3,4,5
      • This also proved to be true in one industry study when offering a sticker in exchange for making calls decreased the number of callers and calling volunteers and asking them to make calls increased the number of callers.
      • Some industry research suggests that emphasizing the social enjoyment of volunteering can be intrinsically motivating.
  4. Training is key – because quality is key.
    • Nickerson and colleagues found that well trained callers mobilize voters 2.5-4.5% more than poorly trained callers.6 This means that it’s especially important to make sure that volunteers feel comfortable making calls, talking about the candidates or issues the calls are about, and that they feel able to go “off-script” to have genuine conversations with voters.
  5. Team community is important.
    • In a 2019 volunteer survey7, SDAN found that the team aspect and the social closeness among Sister District Project teams and affiliates was especially important to volunteers and predicted increased involvement in the organization.
    • Several industry studies have found that making volunteers feel appreciated, useful, and part of a larger mission encourages more participation.
    • Industry sources regularly find that people who are recruited by friends are more likely to actually volunteer than people who are recruited by campaign staffers.
  6. Areas for future exploration:
    • Gamification/friendly competition in the context of national volunteer bases
      • While intrinsic motivation is important, many organizers report positive results from the use of friendly competitions or “gamifying” volunteer activities like fundraising. Gamification involves making an activity more “game-like” to further engage folks in the activity. Examples are things like using leaderboards and earning badges for accomplishments.
    • Ladder of engagement
      • Little is known about the best practices around moving volunteers “up the ladder of engagement” to, for instance, turn an email subscriber into a first time volunteer event attendee or a textbank attendee into a phonebanker.

References: 

  1. https://sisterdistrict.com/research/personal-contact-works-better-than-just-email
  2. Industry source (SDAN has access to various research reports by progressive organizations that we are not allowed to disseminate or cite but are sharing broad strokes of here).
  3. Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105.
  4. Deci, E. L. (1976). The hidden costs of rewards. Organizational Dynamics, 4(3), 61-72.
  5. Anderson, R., Manoogian, S. T., & Reznick, J. S. (1976). The undermining and enhancing of intrinsic motivation in preschool children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(5), 915.
  6. Nickerson, D. W. (2007). Quality is job one: Professional and volunteer voter mobilization calls. American Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 269-282. (https://sites.temple.edu/nickerson/files/2017/07/Quality.Nickerson.2007.pdf)
  7. https://sisterdistrict.com/research/social-invesment-in-teams

Download the PDF: Volunteer Engagement Research

Videos

What’s the Most Effective GOTV Messaging?

It’s science—these messages work best to get voters to the polls. Brought to you by Sister District Action Network Associate Director of Research Mallory Roman.

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